This is such great news. Analyst Yochanan Visser, writing at Western Journalism, highlighted yesterday a report from Turkish media outlet Today’s Zaman that Turkey will exercise a veto over the target list in Syria for U.S. air forces flying from Turkish bases.
According to Today’s Zaman:
The full details of the US-Turkey deal will become clear in the coming weeks. In some form, Ankara will have oversight of US targets: strikes that help the YPG [Syrian Kurdish force] link its territories along Syria’s border with Turkey will be vetoed. …
Therefore, as argued in a new Chatham House paper, Turkey will play a major role in determining the future of the Kurds and their campaigns in Syria.
Visser refers to this, not unnaturally, as the U.S. selling out the Kurds to get the Turkish basing concession.
How big is the sell-out? The consensus is that we’ll find out the answer to that and other questions “in the coming weeks.” Well – maybe.
One specific question is how expansive the Turkish veto is. Does it affect only the targets struck by U.S. aircraft flying from Turkey? If U.S. aircraft fly from Iraq, or from the carrier in the Persian Gulf, can they then strike targets that help the YPG? Or is Turkey’s cooperation contingent on holding a veto over the targets struck by all U.S. aircraft in northern Syria?
My bet would be on the latter – whether the veto process is stated formally and publicly or not. When U.S. officials run around mumbling about “working out modalities” to implement the collaboration with Turkey, as they have in the last week, you can smell informal arrangements being cooked up a mile off. Some watch officer on a shared ops floor in Turkey may have a notebook with a checklist in it for obtaining Turkish approval, but the particulars won’t make it to a document that others can inspect – like members of Congress.
Visser also points out his earlier reporting that Turkey’s national intelligence service, MIT, has transported arms to Islamic State in Syria – an assertion made by other Turkish officials. These disclosures, and the information on Turkish complicity in funding ISIS through oil sales (see my 30 July post, linked above), tend to confirm the assessment that Turkey has no intention of “degrading and defeating ISIS” – supposedly the U.S. objective.
Turkey is prepared to put ISIS in its place. But the objectives in Ankara are (1) to get a foot in the door of the “Syria 2.0” development process, and (2) to make sure the Kurds don’t carve out territory that Turkey will have to acknowledge later. ISIS can be useful to both of those objectives.
So can the United States, as long as we are obedient. It looks like we’re going to be. By leaving the “modalities” of the U.S.-Turkey collaboration open-ended, the Obama administration can minimize congressional and public understanding of what’s going on. Working out the capitulation to Turkish demands will apparently be left to the U.S. military, and treated as a set of lower-level operational considerations.
If this sounds astonishing, let’s put it in context by highlighting another passage from the Defense One report by Molly O’Toole, quoted in my post yesterday. This one concerns the legal authority under which U.S. forces will be operating in the collaboration with Turkey (i.e., the kind of issues subsumed under an AUMF, or authorization to use military force).
The National Security Council deferred the question of legal authority to engage Assad’s forces to the Pentagon. But the Pentagon said they don’t yet have an answer.
On Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Sowers reiterated an earlier response from a colleague: “We do not want to get ahead of the [Defense] Secretary in responding.”
Under normal circumstances, the NSC does not defer the question of legal authority to the Pentagon. The NSC exists for the very purpose of managing such issues for the president. “AUMF” is a national policy issue whose scope crosses cabinet boundaries, and for which the buck always stops with the president himself. Thorny questions about such authority are not actually the Pentagon’s to answer — although the secretary of defense, after proper NSC-supervised coordination, may often answer them. The reason we have an NSC is to represent the president himself on those matters. (For historical perspective: Vietnam remains our prime example of the political disaster it is to bury the “whom are we shooting at” questions in mid-level planning mumbo-jumbo. For a densely-researched primer on how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations got us into a world of trouble in that regard, see H.R. McMaster’s 1997 book Dereliction of Duty.)
From the first day of the Libya intervention in 2011, when the entire U.S. chain of command was represented by a two-star admiral in a non-prime-time Pentagon briefing, the Obama administration has regularly “deferred to the Pentagon” on issues the White House (i.e., the NSC) should speak to the public on. On Tuesday of this week, the Pentagon sent a lieutenant colonel (!) to a conference call with journalists on U.S. national policy in Syria, which seems practically designed to avoid accountable responses.
Of course the Obama White House will make unstated concessions to Turkey, and then tell the Pentagon to work out the details of U.S. subservience to the goals of Ankara. The pattern is already there; this is just a new instance of it.